R&B vocalist Bettye LaVette had a Top 10 hit back in 1962 with the song “My Man—He’s A Lovin’ Man,” but through bad luck never found her way back into the spotlight until recently.
She worked through the many lean years and found some long overdue recognition in 2005 with “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise,” a critically acclaimed album of cover songs produced by Joe Henry. LaVette just landed her first-ever Grammy nomination for “The Scene Of The Crime,” her 2007 collaboration with Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers.
What were the first words out of your mouth when you heard you got a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album?
There weren’t any words. I didn’t say anything. I had my mouth open and tears running down my eyes but I couldn’t say anything because I couldn’t breathe. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
If you know how to do something else, do it!
That optimistic, huh?
I really don’t think very much of this business. And less and less as it becomes more commercialized. If I can sing my heart out and have to run up against somebody who has a million dollars or something, how do I compete? If people would get the stars out of their eyes and stop thinking that (record executive) Clive Davis is going to spend $20 million on everybody then they would learn their craft. I don’t care how big your records are, if you should ... wind up with me in a small room with nothing but a baby grand piano, I’m going to kick your ass!
So many musicians have struggled with drug and alcohol dependency issues. Have you avoided that stuff in your career?
We are all crazy; we’re just various kinds of crazy. I really believe that if I could do my show high I probably would. But I started off sober—I was 16—so it helps a great deal that I didn’t start out as a grown person getting high. I drink champagne now, (but) if I get drunk then I can’t sing.
Are you going to the Grammys?
Hey, (even) if I have to walk ! I’ve always wanted to go just to be there, so you know I’m going to go if they send for me. I am very excited and very satisfied. I feel vindicated. I feel really, really, really good. And no one knows what it’s like not to feel those things. They just think, “Oh, you were broke.” No, I was being insulted and ignored. I started off with a hit record, so that gives you an attitude. So it always stayed with me that I was a star, and then when they wouldn’t treat me like one it was very frustrating (laughs).
THE BEST OF BETTYE LAVETTE
Here are five essential songs from albums throughout Bettye LaVette’s career:
“Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette).” A stirring account of her rocky career, LaVette sings of busted record label deals, commercial neglect and being happy to take gigs that were worth just 50 bucks. That was all before the money came, of course. LaVette co wrote this one, a rarity for her. From “The Scene of the Crime” (Anti-), 2007.
“Talking Old Soldiers.” A scorching take of the classic Elton John and Bernie Taupin ballad that is utterly heart wrenching. Also from “The Scene of the Crime.”
“Joy.” LaVette’s version of this Lucinda Williams song absolutely bursts with passion and pain. A performance that rivals the original and is sure to leave you breathless. From “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise.” (Anti-), 2005.
“Only Time Will Tell Me.” This ultra-funky track was originally done by the late `60s, early-‘70s folk-rock outfit Joy of Cooking. LaVette gives it her all on this early feminist anthem that’s also notable for some stunning work from keyboardist Lisa Coleman, onetime member of Prince’s band the Revolution. From “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise.”
“My Man—He’s A Lovin’ Man.” LaVette was all of 16 when she recorded this one in 1962, and her sly, sexy performance made it a Top 10 R&B hit. After this first taste of fame, it took 40-plus years for her to regain the same measure of recognition. From “Child of the Seventies” (Rhino), a 2006 compilation of early-career material.
// Notes from the Road
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